Gateway Airport Fixes Freeway Signage Problems

Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 

Passengers have been flocking to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (AZA) in droves for the past few years. But until recently, many had trouble finding it. With just one sign on the freeway, guests would often exit prematurely or miss the airport exit altogether. GPS units weren't much help either, as mapping agencies have had difficulty keeping current with rapid development in the area.


Project: Freeway Signage Update

Location: Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport

Prime Consultant: Otak

Engineer: Jacobs Engineering

A new series of signs, however, gives airport visitors more warnings about impending exits, and points them to the easiest and most direct path to the airport. And best of all, the wayfinding improvements cost the airport a fraction of what officials initially expected.

According to a preliminary report from Airports Council International, AZA is the fastest-growing airport in the country, with double-digit growth for the last several years. In 2012, AZA served nearly 1.4 million airline passengers - an astounding 45% increase vs. the previous year - and added two gates and a post-security courtyard. The rapid growth, however, exacerbated AZA's existing off-airport wayfinding problems. With complaints about difficulty locating the facility bubbling to the surface of annual passenger surveys, airport officials took action.

Part of the issue was the airport's name. Over the past 20 years, it has changed from Williams Air Force Base to Williams Gateway Airport to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, as it's called today. As such, some drivers who couldn't find the proper airport signs often mistakenly took the exit for Williams Field Road, which is five miles from AZA via surface roads.

"When we changed the name to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, local people still called it Williams Gateway. And until about two years ago, signs for 'Williams Field' still existed," explains Brian Sexton, the airport's public information officer.

Dovetailing Plans

The airport hired Otak to develop a master plan for new signage and wayfinding. Ongoing efforts led by Senior Planner Brad Bielenberg began in December 2012, with Otak personnel collecting background information and taking inventory of all existing signage. Concurrently, they conducted a precedent study, evaluating how 15 airports around the nation approach freeway and arterial road signage, and analyzed a user study of passengers traveling to and from AZA.

During the preliminary work, personnel discovered that the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) was already planning to update signage on state route 202 during construction of a new freeway leading to the airport. When ADOT and the airport met to discuss the project, they determined which signs could be modified to improve airport wayfinding.

"Because of the timing of ADOT's construction project, we were able to include better airport signage into their sign package," explains Casey Denny, deputy director at AZA. "We did it by simplifying messages and increasing the number of signs, which ADOT funded as part of their freeway construction project."

A series of 13 new signs now direct visitors to the airport. Nine were already in ADOT's plan but were modified, per suggestions from AZA and its consultants. The state agency also agreed to add four more signs to facilitate overall traffic flow and improve airport wayfinding. Because the requests came before any signs were fabricated, cost increases were minor, and ADOT was open to the changes, recalls Denny.

"Because the plan was already in place, the airport was not required to fund the signs, saving us a great deal of money," he adds.

Simplifying the signs was a key change, notes Bielenberg. The new signs include the airport symbol (an aircraft silhouette) and a single word - Gateway - rather than AZA's full name, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. This was the best way to incorporate the signage that was already scheduled without making major design changes, he notes. 

Bielenberg and the Otak team, which includes Selbert Perkins Design, Jacobs Engineering and Gunn Communications, then worked with ADOT to develop the signs to ADOT specifications.

"When the airport's staff approached us, it made sense to include their plan for improved signs while we were still working on our freeway project," says ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel. "Our agency works hard on partnerships with local communities and agencies. We certainly were open to working on something that will help freeway drivers as they approach Gateway Airport."

Assembling the Pieces

AZA is owned and operated by the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Authority, which encompasses four different communities in addition to the cities of Phoenix and Mesa. The airport took care to keep each one posted on the new highway signage, working particularly close with the city of Mesa as the project developed with ADOT.

"The freeway runs through the city of Mesa," Denny explains. "When a passenger takes the freeway exit to the airport, they pass through the city. With that in mind, we wanted to ensure that they were happy with the way the signs were installed.

"They were very helpful and instrumental toward completing this project in a timely manner; the cooperation they exhibited is what allowed the timeline to progress so quickly. Everyone was aligned. Gateway is a regional destination, and everyone supported the new freeway signage. "

With fully 60% of AZA passengers arriving from out-of-state, clear and highly visible freeway signs are paramount to the trajectory of the airport's growth.

"Many people don't know there are two airports in the Phoenix area," explains Sexton. "This is going to help tremendously."

ADOT is equally excited. "Over time, we've heard from drivers who have wondered if we were going to do anything about the signs along Loop 202," says Nintzel. "We assured them that their patience would be rewarded with the freeway improvements and new, improved signs."

Denny, who has worked with AZA for 20 years, predicts that recent wayfinding improvements outside the airport will pay dividends immediately and, more importantly, in the coming decades as economic development in the area continues to take shape.

"Going forward, we would like to extend the signs into the metro area for an even further reach," he notes.

Currently, AZA serves more than 35 cities with non-stop service via Allegiant and Spirit Airlines, and provides continuing service to many more destinations. Although the airport's recently updated master plan is based on enplanements reaching 850,000 by 2017, AZA is on pace to exceed that forecast by the end of 2015.

With better signs now in place, the drive to the airport will surely be faster and easier for passengers. And that, in turn, should help AZA manage its rapid growth.


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